We’ve had some pivotal elections in Canadian history — ones that really stood out for their drama and their importance.
Take the 1911 election. Wilfrid Laurier had been in power too long. He’d had a pretty good run over the previous 15 years, but it was time for him to go. Rather than try to hand off power to a new generation, Laurier and his government made a free trade deal with the Americans. The Tories, under Robert Borden, said the deal would destroy Canada’s “Britishness” and turn us into a colony run from Washington.
The Tories won. Laurier hung in as Opposition leader for another election. When it came, in 1917, it was the only national election ever proven to have been rigged. The Tories and some turncoat Liberals, who wanted the power to draft men to fight in World War I, gave the vote to women — but only those who had close relatives at the front. They also divided up soldiers’ votes among ridings where Tories needed a few extra to win.
We had another barnburner in 1945. Again, a Liberal government had been in power too long. William Lyon Mackenzie King had dominated politics through the 1920s and 1930s, had led the country through the war, and wanted a mandate that would take him into the next decade. The Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, a forerunner of the New Democrats, was ahead in the polls in the early months of peace. The party promised to pay for the wartime hardships with new social programs. King simply stole the CCF platform and won another term.
Then there was the 1988 Free Trade election. After years of supporting free trade with the Americans, the Liberals were now against it. After years of opposing free trade with the Americans, the Tories were for it. Both sides fought hard, joined by business, union, environmental, and social organizations that had very diverse views about the deal. Canadians listened.
So elections aren’t boring. Or at least they don’t have to be. This one should rank among the best.
At least two very different, competing visions of Canada are on offer. One is a Canada that is authoritarian, suspicious, and angry. The other is a Canada that may already be part of history — one that values diversity, believes in civil rights, and at least pays lip service to democracy.
But will the discussion actually take place?
In 2011, many Con-servative candidates refused to show up at all-candidates meetings. Instead, leaders of all the major parties travel the country speaking to selected crowds of campaign volunteers. Campaign ads, even when they’re not vicious attacks, tell us very little about the policies of candidates.
Susan Delacourt, in her 2013 book Shopping for Votes, described the new retail politics as a system of electing candidates that is far from democratic. At least in the minds of the strategists (the tribe of pollsters and marketers who run campaigns and dominate news-network panels) computerized fundraising, vote tracking, and social media are far more important than making face time between candidates and citizens.
And that’s what this election may well be about. The ballot question might seem to be whether the economist-in-chief, teenage Jesus, or angry Tom is the lesser of the evils on offer. But in reality, it’s about whether Canadians want to take back their democracy. Do they care enough to shake up the political class and take back power? Or are they just there to be dupes and suckers in a crooked race to elect a king?